Democracy's Rough Road in Algeria

ON June 12, Algeria held its first free elections since independence from France in 1962. Only provincial and municipal offices were contested. But the solid victory of the Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamentalist party seeking to establish an Islamic republic, challenged for the first time the decades-old authoritarian government of Algeria's ruling party, the National Liberation Front. Capitalizing on his party's triumph, Abassi al-Madani, head of the Islamic Salvation Front, demanded that national parliamentary elections be held within three months.

The National Liberation Front's legitimacy has eroded as Algeria's economy has sunk into negative growth rates, the result of a steep decline in the world prices of petroleum and natural gas, the country's primary exports. An astounding 3.2 percent population growth rate has compounded the situation, creating an acute housing shortage and unemployment approaching 30 percent.

Following violent riots in October 1988, which left an estimated 500 students dead, President Chadli Benjedid has pursued a policy of economic and political liberalization. In February 1989, a new constitution approved in a national referendum officially ended state socialism and allowed for the creation of a multiparty system.

Until its recent defeat, the National Liberation Front dominated every aspect of political life in Algeria. For now, it retains control of the national government, including the national assembly and the presidency.

The latest elections represent the birth of democracy. Unfortunately, Algerian democracy appears stillborn.

If fundamentalist Muslims gain power in the next parliamentary elections, Algeria's fledgling democracy will almost certainly perish. Although Mr. Madani's victorious Islamic Salvation Front has not yet publicly declared a national agenda, the party's history makes its intentions clear. The party evolved out of the Muslim brotherhood, a fundamentalist group advocating the application of the sharia, or Islamic law.

The Muslim brotherhood has long supported the policy of ``arabization,'' which discriminates against the language and culture of Algeria's minority Berber population. The brotherhood is also known for its persecution of women. One of its purported goals is to eliminate women from the work force and return them to their ``place'' at home.

Throughout Algeria, horrifying accounts of recent fundamentalist terrorism are told.

In the Saharan village of Ouargla, Muslim brothers torched the residence of a woman accused of immorality, burning her infant son to death. In Constantine, the brothers, sometimes called the Islamic Police, threw acid on young women refusing to wear traditional veils. In Sidi-Amer, a single women's apartment building was destroyed, the furniture dragged into the street and burned.

Despite Madani's denials that the Islamic Police have used violence, the fundamentalist movement's tendency toward harsh, anti-democratic activity is well established.

Equally troubling, the current Algerian leadership may crack down on liberties in order to maintain control in the face of growing fundamentalism. The National Liberation Front's past human rights abuses have secured Algeria a seemingly permanent chapter in Amnesty International's annual reports.

Algeria's best hope for democracy is cooperation between the democratic opposition and secular, liberal-minded members of the National Liberation Front. For the moment, even this seems unlikely.

Distrustful of the front, two main democratic opposition parties boycotted the June 12 elections, leaving the Rally for Culture and Democracy, a Berber party, to scrape up the electoral leftovers.

For its part, the National Liberation Front, already lacking legitimacy, will find it difficult to reverse the tide of fundamentalism. Ironically, the government itself, which has sought for years to co-opt fundamentalist Muslims, is largely to blame for the current atmosphere. Although the term ``socialism'' was suppressed from the 1989 constitution, Islam remained the state religion.

Undoubtedly, Algeria faces its most difficult obstacle to date. The outcome of its first free elections has completely and perhaps irreversibly altered the political balance.

While free elections are normally cause for rejoicing, the Algerian case dangerously resembles the rise of fascism through electoral victory in the German Weimar Republic. In the end, the Iranian example may also provide a clue as to what will follow.

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